Unexpected Grace: Ten conversion novels you should read

Sadly, literature that brings faith authentically to bear on the world is a rare thing. But here are ten novels that use the narrative of conversion to show faith and grace colliding with the ordinary, the sordid and the plain broken. Not all are by professing believers. Not all are orthodox. But all are compelling in their own way, and all make faith feel very real.

9 & 10: A Pure Clear Light and The Essence of the Thing – Madeleine St John

Sydney girl turned wry and urbane Londoner, St John was most famous for her first novel, a witty depiction of a lady’s department store, The Women in Black. But she also wrote three other novels, a kind of loose trilogy, sharing some characters, the same inner London cultured set and a darker and more cynical tone. Yet St John, a late convert, managed to take her characters just to the threshold of faith in utterly unexpected ways. Characters cheat on each other, lie, doubt, and then approach belief without even noticing themselves get there. The last novel in the trilogy, Stairway to Paradise, was the weakest but also hit the faith note with greatest subtlety. Had she lived longer, who knows how deft her touch might have grown.

8: Life After God – Douglas Coupland

A series of vignettes of post-religion North America, this early Coupland slowly arrests you with its quiet ache of longing until you cry out with its narrator, “I need God.”

7: The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy

The only Tolstoy I have finished (and amongst his shortest), Ivan Ilyich packs a punch. Mostly the death-bed resentment of a sick and bitter man who trusts no-one, including his family, this novella takes you right into the psyche of an embittered soul and leads you imperceptibly to redemption.

6: The Moviegoer – Walker Percy

Percy is a curious figure in Catholic literature. Equal parts Kierkegaardian philosopher and satirist of American culture, he sometimes seems strangely lacking in faith. Many readers may find some of his treatments of women to be uncomfortable. But his first novel is a tour-de-force examination of the modern quest for physical sensation and the discovery of grace in the sacrament of everyday life.

5: Barabbas – Pär Lagerkvist

It might be a bit much to call this a conversion novel, but this story of the man who Jesus replaced on the cross has some of the most intriguing discussions of faith that I’ve encountered in 20th century literature. A Swedish Nobel laureate, Lagerkvist explored characters touched by the cross twice in his work, via mythology in The Death of Ahaseuras and more directly in Barabbas. He wasn’t, to my knowledge, a believer, and some theological details here are dubious, but Barabbas’ life after his unexpected exchange with Christ is a fascinating reflection on what it means to be a believer and a reprobate.

4: Saint Maybe – Anne Tyler

Also not a Christian herself, Anne Tyler makes raw and unvarnished Christian faith and redemption the central force of change in this touching family drama by one of the greatest living novelists working in English.

3: Lila – Marilynne Robinson

The third in her Gilead novels, Lila is in my opinion the best. Both a delicate love story and an unpretentious, warts-and-all tale of grace at work in a wounded life, Lila tells the story of Reverend Wilmot’s much younger wife and how she came to experience and trust the love of God expressed in an unexpected person.

2: Viper’s Tangle – François Mauriac

Almost any of Mauriac’s novels could be here but I’ve picked my favourite. Mauriac’s characters are almost always ugly, mean or pathetic, and yet he always portrays them with a tenderness approaching love. The marvel of this one lies in watching the vipers’ nest within its protagonist untangle with God’s hand. Few other Christian writers have explored the depths of humanity with as much grace and honesty as Mauriac.

1: Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

When Andrew Davies adapted this book for film he said he was getting rid of the “God stuff”, which is rather like taking the running out of Chariots of Fire. He failed, because God is central to this novel. All he managed to get rid of was the conversion, which was like taking out Eric Liddell’s gold medal. Don’t watch the film. Read the book instead.

Miracles of Grass

A devout gardener, my eldest comes out here
each day, to inspect, to water.
Sometimes he waters the concrete, sometimes
the soil. Most of it
is sapped up by unseasonal sun,
some soaks in. Butas we persist, he and I, we see
this transformation, like
a renewing mind: creeper grass
stretching out
green tendrils into a former wastelandand I am mindful to watch
the miracle of creeping grace
expanding where it is not seen.

They knew Him too at breakfast

where, on the shore, He had
already assembled, as a table,
prepared for expected guests,
a charcoal fire, some fish laid out,
and, being himself the bread,
a loaf laid for good measure.

No need, of course, for the fish they brought.
No need, either, for that excess in their boats.
To feed seven mouths plus His,
that net-bursting horn of plenty was,
as old Judas, wilting, would have had them know,
not quite au fait.

Yet fitting – that He who made Leviathan solely to frolic
should choose to play with the resources of Galilee
to make much of these staples,
to invite, to delight,
and in the olive branch of this table set
in the presence of friends and enemies

to ask, as the mercy-cup overflowed in the background,
Simon, do you love me?

The dishes you will always have with you

and the laundry, piled up
in crevices and corridors as though to say,
“You can hide me, but you cannot do without me.”
Toys underfoot and books scattered wide
amongst other toddler treasures:
a measuring cup, a rooster,
a brochure considered la mode before
some other fancy flitted through the growing mind.
Some things are permanent, like
dishes, some new –
an Amen! after grace.
Unsettled nights and
teary mornings only serve to say
that all this may pass, but God
it is good that it finds me at all.

Poema

You create and give; I take and arrange
words like atoms, rhythms like pulses
and the matter of your cosmos like
the setting of a table:
an act of grace here, a wilderness feast.

You create and I, created, imitate.
More, I steward
the tones you have embedded in our movements, our speech.
I listen and echo
the hidden poundings of the muted heart,
to say
as a host at table might –
Here, a space is left for you.
And then I point,
first to you who, poised at the vast edge of nothing,
said, Let there be.
And then, second, to the open arms,
the nails, the wood,
the carpenter carved up to make
a home for us.

My Examen

Give me only your love and grace. That is enough for me.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Suscipe

Resolution is void.
The more I look inward,
the more each motive,
each spirit I discern
becomes a snarl, a defiant reminder
that my best attempts are, at best, no good.

Though I ask my conscience to justify
each act from rising to setting of sun,
only the man on the tree has answers for me.
My questions, at best, hammer nails.

What am I doing, have done for Christ?
The soldier sounds the Spirit’s reveille;
Morning exercise leaves me faint;
only Your love, Your grace animate me.

Lying upon my desultory stone,
this alone can console: the sight
of heaven descending to where I lie,
and God in this place, though I did not know.

The moment

when I realise
not that I must always be Somewhere –
fording some Jordan, scaling some Hebron,
engaged in daily grandiose deeds –
but that here, now,
at the interstice of wilful self
and the ever-grinding call
to nothing grand but

a pile of dishes,
a child needing a hug,
a moment of playing at eye-level on the floor,
a gracious word to turn away my own vigilant wrath,

is precisely where
the fear, the trembling, the working-out
of Grace’s grindstone begins.